Microtiming: Degrees of Swing, Reverse Swing, and Compound Swing.

  1. Introduction
  2. Using the grid
  3. Reverse swing
  4. Compound swing
  5. Conclusion

Most musicians are aware of the idea of ‘swing’ as off-beats lying somewhere between the triplet grid and the quaver grid. Somewhere ‘in the cracks’ between

Close to but not exactly

The way this is usually learnt is by ear, listening & playing along to a lot of music and just absorbing the ‘feel’ of where those swung off-beats land between the downbeats. Like learning many other music/language skills, this ‘osmosis’ method is often enough. However, equally as often it’s not… as with a lot of things, if you’re not conscious of what you’re doing then while there’s a good chance you might happen to be doing the perfect thing for the music at the time just by ‘feeling it’, there’s also the chance that a blindspot is making you fight the music, or undermine it in some way. A good friend of mine told me about the time they auditioned a drummer who played an entire song in a swung feel that really should have been straight, turning an aggressive & raw track with attitude, into a jaunty pantomime knees-up…

So let’s shine a bit of light on this area for a few reasons:

  1. To be able to make better musical decisions, either as a group, section, or individual player
  2. To be able to practise it systematically and have it as a usable, adaptable skill in our toolbox
  3. To abstract the concept and see what other ideas come out of it. Let’s get weird!

First off let’s look at what ‘swing’ is exactly. If we state the distance of the weak beat as it lies between the downbeats as a percentage, straight 8ths would be 50%, triplets would be around 67%. The reality is that we can put the ‘swung’ weak beat at any point between the strong beats, and that will give a certain rhythmic feel (as long as it’s consistent!). Below is a visual representation of this, in terms of a time-line on the left, and in a circle on the right – like a clock that counts one beat – the downbeat is at the top and the off-beat at the other point.

Showing swing as a percentage of time between strong beats

Note- For the following examples, I’ve generally looked specifically at the timing of the drums only, by loading the clips into a DAW to look at the average ‘swing’ points between downbeats.

Here’s a well-known jazz recording with a fairly typical ‘swing’ value of 70% 8th-note swing. That is to say, the off-beat 8th notes land at 70% of the time interval from one downbeat to the next (shown in red below) – a little later than the third of a set of triplets (67% – shown with a grey line), and a little earlier than where the 4th of a 16th note grid (1-e-and-A) would land (75% – grey line).

‘Freddie Freeloader’ – Miles Davis (© 1959 Columbia)

Here’s another example, this time the swing is in the 16th-note grid, that is to say the off-beat 16th notes (‘E’ & ‘A’) are swung in the region of 58-60%, while the downbeats and ‘AND’s are not.

‘Baby, This Love I Have’ – Minnie Riperton (© 1975 Capitol Records)

Or a more modern take using ‘quintuplet’ 8th-note swing (60%)

‘Velours’ – Anomalie (©2017 Anomalie)

Music’s totally subjective, and of course many other factors are affecting the feels of these tracks, but to me I’d say the first example (70% 8th note swing) has a classic, laid-back, ‘circular’ feel to it, the second (58-60% 16th note swing) a more ‘square’ but still laid-back feel with some bounce & forward momentum, and the third (60% 8th note swing) a more jilted, quirky feel. How much would the character of each song be changed if everything else stayed the same, but their swing values were different?

Freddie Freeloader – no swing
Freddie Freeloader – tighter swing
Baby This Love I Have – tighter swing
Baby This Love I Have – no swing
Velours – no swing
Velours – simple triplet swing

As an added bonus in case you were in any doubt as to how the appropriate level of swing can make or break a style, here’s three examples guaranteed to give any classic rocker an instant aneurysm:


Often if we’re talking about ‘swinging’ a rhythm, it’s taken to mean that we’re superimposing a more interesting time feel on to notation that would otherwise be quite static. E.g straight quavers becoming more like the first and third triplets. If you’re putting the notes down on a grid, the slots are now unequally spaced.


So once you’ve familiarised yourself with playing in some different swing feels [LINK TO PRACTISE PAGE], you can start superimposing these feels on to existing grooves. 

For example:


If we take this idea of a shifted off-beat and choose to put the weak beat before the mid-point of the downbeats, we end up with what I call ‘reverse swing’. This can result in a feel that could be described as more rushed, urgent, galloping, awkward.. play around with it and let me know how you hear it!

Here’s a ‘reverse swing’ version of a relatively well known tune to get you in the mood:

Below are some examples of some reverse swing grooves on drums, mapping what would be a fairly standard groove onto odd subdivisions

For example, adapting this groove gives us these:

reverse 16th notes – ‘scotch snaps’

simple reverse triplet swing

simple reverse quintuplet swing

To practise with, here’s some examples of feels on a grid of subdivisions (though just like regular swing, it’s the cracks between the subdivisions that will give the best feels)

16th note reverse swing
(‘scotch snaps’)


triplet reverse swing


quintuplet reverse swing



septuplet reverse swing




septuplet reverse swing B



* if you were to put the swung beat on a different subdivision, you’d get a different, ‘tighter’ swing feel. E.g. the 3rd septuplet instead of 4th gives a swing position of 29% – right in between 16ths and triplets.

Here’s a track from Mauritius’ Kaya. Based in triplet time (with a slightly late second triplet) the rhythm section more often emphasise the downbeat and the ‘trip’, giving a ‘reverse swing’ feel. This is quite a common trend with sega/seggae music, so if you like it go and dig some more!

Kaya – Simé la limière


We can also try adapting a groove with more syncopation:

reverse quintuplet swing

varying quintuplet swing

reverse septuplet swing (B)

using reverse triplet swing for the 16th note grid (8th note grid is straight)

By the way, you could also call this ‘trochaic’ swing, in that it’s based on trochees (¯ ˘) rather than iambs (˘ ¯).* That is to say, a meter based on a stressed sound followed by an unstressed one, rather than the other way round (unstressed leading into a stressed). Iambic swing has definitely been the predominantly used style of swing in western music since its popularisation by jazz and blues in the 20th century, and there’s some fascinating discussion to be had here in terms of how language shapes our musical choices, but that’s for another time. If you’re interested, you could start by checking out this video, and also this one.

* If you’re more interested in how this applies to music check out The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper & Leonard B. Meyer, in which they analyse rhythmic meter in terms of poetic feet.


Here’s where things can get pretty funky. What happens if you swing the 8th notes by one amount, and the 16th notes by another? As it turns out, quite a range of – for lack of a better word – stanky effects.

If the 16th notes and the 8th notes are both swung a little, this has the effect of pushing everything late except the downbeat. Here’s a couple of great examples:

From New Orleans, Galactic’s ‘Tchfunkta’ (drums: Stanton Moore)

‘Tchfunkta’ – Galactic (©1998 Fog City Records)

and London’s Yussef Kamaal (drums: Yussef Dayes)

‘Joint 17’ – Yussef Kamaal (©2016 Brownswood Recordings)

Here’s an example using a triplet grid:

This track from Kenya’s I. Jingo features a triplet grid where the second triplet is ~40% (instead of the usual 33%), and the third is 66% (about where it would be in a straight group of triplets). Note that that second triplet at 40% is where the third of a set of quintuplets would fall!

‘Fever’ – I. Jingo (©1977 Afro-Rock)

In this batucada style samba by Portinho, the shaker pattern is using a varied 16th note swing grid, where the ‘e’ (second 16th note) is around 28%, and the ‘a’ (last 16th note) is around 70%. The 8th note grid is pretty much even. As with most previous examples, other instruments will have their own grids/feels, some closer to triplets, some closer to straight 16ths.. this is part of the magic of this, and many other genres!

‘Follow the Conga’ – Portinho (©2014 KPM Music Ltd)

Another thing we can do is use multiple varied swings all at the same time, as in this great example by D’Angelo (drums: Questlove)

Here we get more into the ‘Dilla beat’ end of things – mixed swings of straight 32nd (first off-beat hi-hat), straight 6-let (kick), some softly swung 8ths (56%), even a reverse 33% too (this is a hi-hat which you could also see as a series of 1/4 note triplets across beats 3&4). Oh and also the snare backbeats are slightly early too, because why not.

‘Left and Right’ – D’Angelo (©2000 Virgin Records America, Inc.)

As mentioned briefly, that last example uses another very commonly used ‘feel’ effect, which is for either the snare or kick to be slightly earlier or later than the rest of the grid. Not far enough to be on a different subdivision, but just ‘behind the beat’ or ‘ahead of the beat’. This affects the feel by either ‘pulling back’ / ‘dragging’ the tempo, or ‘driving’ / ‘rushing’ it along, respectively.


Essentially, microtiming and degrees of swing are to rhythm what intonation is to pitch. It’s such a fine line, a subtle thing; sometimes it’s make-or-break, sometimes not so much. If you have a group of instruments playing in tight harmony, good intonation is essential. If a singer is singing on their own or as a separate lead part, it’s still important but they have more freedom to play with it, bend notes, add expression.

In harmony, intonation is vital because what we’re experiencing are consonant (or dissonant) harmonics being stacked up on top of each other, our brains recognising and processing these patterns in a fraction of a second. In rhythm, it’s all the same thing but at much slower speeds – so we have more time to play with. More of a chance to hear and experience imperfections, and create different effects with that. What would be considered ‘perfect intonation’ in the rhythm world would be all the instruments lined up exactly with each other on a grid (quantised). Sometimes this is absolutely what the music needs to deliver the intended effect – it would be a mess without it. Other times it will totally ‘dry out’ music where the whole appeal is of the subtle, human imperfections.

As with everything in music, there’s no right or wrong – just different effects, choices, tastes, and tools to communicate. All the different ideas in this post convey subtly different feelings when used, and so with practise I hope this adds something to your toolbox! If you found any of this interesting at all or have made any music with the ideas, leave a comment below – I’d love to hear it.

Cheers- Jack

In terms of ‘compound’ swing and more advanced/in-depth microtiming, I have to give a quick shoutout to Malcolm Braff who has explored this area in some detail, definitely check him out if you’re interested in this.


‘New Heights’ – off-beat 16th notes (‘e’ and ‘a’) fluctuate between 45-55% (Note- going below 50% introduces some ‘reverse’ swing)

‘New Heights (Visions of Aisha Malik)’ – Kamaal Williams & Darkhouse Family (©2018 Black Focus)

Cissy Strut – generally dances around 54-56% (drums) – guitar is more swung and also ‘behind’ (later than) the drums

‘Cissy Strut’ – The Meters (©1969 Warner Records Inc.)

Ready or Not – hip-hop swing – 60%

‘Ready or Not’ – Fugees (©1996 Columbia Records)

The New Reel – off-beat 16th notes swung at 53%, changes into 6-let swing (83%)

‘The New Reel’ – Lettuce (©2015 Lettuce Records)

9 thoughts on “Microtiming: Degrees of Swing, Reverse Swing, and Compound Swing.

  1. Hello Jack
    This lesson is something of an eyeopener for me! Many thanks,
    Do you know of any online metronome that gives the possibility of delaying the subbeat or vice-versa?
    Regards Dines

    1. Hi Dines, glad you enjoyed the article! I am currently working on a metronome to do that, which should be released very soon – I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s out 🙂

  2. Wow. I’ve been searching for stuff about these concepts for a long time and it’s very exciting to find this. It’s very well written and full of great ideas. I’ll go through all the articles before I start asking questions, but thanks in advance for this site.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Kevin! Your site really helped me get inside a lot of the music that inspired me to go into this stuff! Any questions or thoughts are welcome any time 🙂 Cheers

      1. Wow – do you mean the timba site? If so, the way Cuban music intersects with swing is a whole other fascinating topic. For example, I tried to measure the swing of changüí – the guayo part that would be written as a quaver and two semi-quavers (https://youtu.be/9In-XlvdpvM?t=4) – and found that most of the Guantánamo guys seem to swing that figure at about 40% and 70%. But getting back to North American swing, my first few questions have to do with your techniques and methods. Above you say:

        “For the following examples, I’ve generally looked specifically at the timing of the drums only, by loading the clips into a DAW to look at the average ‘swing’ points between downbeats.”

        1. Which DAW or DAWs do you use?
        2. How do you go about figuring out these average swing points?
        3. In the amazing videos above where you’re playing drums and showing the super-cool animated graphic to illustrate the swing:
        a) what program did you use to create the graphic overlay?
        b) How did you teach yourself to cycle through the various swing percentage so smoothly?!?!? Do you set up some sort of special swing percentage click in the headphones?
        I have *so* many other questions!

        1. It absolutely is another fascinating topic, and one I’m sure is very dynamic rather than fixed! Would be great to delve deeper into that. Your point about the notation is exactly the point of all this – there’s a cavernous gap between written notation and the intricacies and nuances of the music itself, all the details that make it special.

          In answer to your questions:
          1- I use Pro Tools/Ableton/Logic for their various strengths

          2- I load e.g. an 8-bar section of a track into a DAW, match the tempo of the DAW to the music as closely as I can per bar (or even per beat if it changes a lot) and then work out the time percentage between downbeats that the ‘offbeats’ are generally occurring at – Logic for example will tell you where the cursor is in ‘ticks’, a very fine subdivision of each beat (~1000 per beat). More often than not on the examples I tried, that swing point landed very close to the same place each beat. However, this is far from a fully-fledged scientific research project!

          3- We’ve just released an app for working on this – Swing Click Metronome – which you can download now from https://swingclickapp.com

          The videos are edited for display purposes to show the different swings back to back; but much like practising tempo or subdivision changes, with more time practising different swing levels it definitely becomes quicker to ‘drop in’ to certain grooves

  3. I noticed a quirk about this site (and a workaround for it) as I attempted to download the musical examples to make a playlist: the 3 vertical dot menu’s download command doesn’t work (on Windows 10 Chrome), BUT, if you right click in the scrolling play display and choose “download audio” that *does* work.

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